The Effect of State and Trait Anxiety on Attention

in Article
October 12th, 2015

A topic that has become more and more prevalent over the last few years is the effect of anxiety on attentiveness. How anxiety affects attention depends on the type of anxiety that is experienced. Most people experience state anxiety, in other words, a higher threat value is placed on a particular situation or stimulus. Feeling anxious during a very important midterm is an example of state anxiety. Another type of anxiety is trait anxiety, which is the tendency to focus one’s attention towards the stimulus causing the anxiety. In other words, to think only about the exam, instead of non-anxiety inducing stimuli.

Attention itself is composed of three independent networks: the alerting network, the orienting network, and the executive network. The alerting network is responsible for maintaining an appropriate level of sensitivity to the stimulus through activation of the right frontal and parietal areas of the brain. The orienting network attends to information coming from a specific stimulus among numerous sensory stimuli. This network is associated with activation in the superior parietal lobe, frontal eye fields, and temporoparietal junction. The executive network is responsible for conflict resolution and voluntary action control of the stimulus, and is related to the medial frontal areas of the brain, as well as the cingulate gyrus and lateral prefrontal cortex.

Two experiments were performed by the Department of Psychology and Physiology at the University of Granada and the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine to learn more about the relationship between these two different types of anxiety and attention. The first focused on trait anxiety, while the second focused on state anxiety.

The first experiment featured a group of individuals with either high or low trait anxiety, and another group of individuals with average trait anxiety. The two groups were made to perform various computer tasks that played to each specific network of attention. What the researchers found was that individuals with high-trait-anxiety had a more difficult time controlling interference in the computer tasks than those with low-trait-anxiety. However, the results of the alerting and orienting tasks were very similar for both groups. Those with high-trait anxiety had a difficult time responding to the task’s demands.

The second experiment also separated participants into two groups for anxious mood induction and non-anxious mood induction. One group was shown pleasant pictures and the other was shown unpleasant pictures, both groups were tasked with becoming emotionally involved in what they were seeing. In the group shown the negative stimuli (the unpleasant pictures), more emphasis was put on the lack of control over the negative circumstances represented in the image. The positive stimuli (the pleasant pictures) in the other group focused more on goal achievement. The individuals shown the negative stimuli revealed higher levels of anxiety than those shown the positive stimuli.

The results of the experiments revealed that both state and trait anxiety have a significant impact on attentional networks. State anxiety was found to have a greater impact on the alerting and orienting networks of attention, because they are more closely related to contextual sensitivity and vigilance processes. High state anxiety was found to be the result of a heightened response in the amygdala and superior temporal sulcus (regions activated during the assessment of valence facial expressions). It was also found that the executive network was less efficient in those with high-trait-anxiety than those with low-trait-anxiety because the executive network determines control, which is what those with high-trait-anxiety were lacking. High trait anxiety was related to a reduced prefrontal response (the region related to controlling complex processes). It was concluded that trait anxiety was responsible for a “reduced-general cognitive control capacity”.

-Allyson Pulsoni


1. Attention and Anxiety: Different Attentional Functioning Under State and Trait Anxiety
Image by Evan89, via Wikimedia Commons

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